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Silent Planet

Eve Leigh
Finborough Theatre

Graeme McKnight and Matthew Thomas Credit: Andrew Witt
Graeme McKnight Credit: Andrew Witt
Graeme McKnight Credit: Andrew Witt

Silent Planet is an intentionally mysterious play that feels dated, since it is set in a Russian psychiatric prison, presumably a Siberian Gulag, around 35 years ago.

The starting point for Eve Leigh's first full-length play, directed by Tom Mansfield, was an incident in the life of dissident Vladimir Bukovsky.

Its central figure, the convincing Graeme McKnight's Gavril Stepanovich, is an intellectual and Samizdat writer. He spends most of the 75 minutes in the kind of relationship that became known as Stockholm Syndrome, in which a prisoner becomes increasingly dependent on his gaoler.

Indeed, Gavril and Dr Yurchak played by Matthew Thomas move from threat and suspicion to what could pass for close friendship, through the auspices of illegal literature.

The early scenes are typical Cold War stuff, as a writer is interrogated by a nominal doctor under the guise of therapy.

Soon enough, the power begins to shift and the dependence becomes mutual as the Doctor gets addicted to the story-telling after Gavril starts to share literary titbits that he reads in the hospital's library.

Why it contains so much work by Bulgakov, Sinyavsky and other banned writers is a mystery that probably could not be explained rationally but helps the plot to build.

Thereafter, the interaction becomes a kind of 1001 Gulag Nights with the patient-prisoner enjoying the kind of minor privileges that mean so much in cases of extreme deprivation bordering on torture.

What is a mildly confusing but intriguing look at life before Communism and the Berlin Wall collapsed simultaneously becomes even more imponderable when Yurchak changes personality and body, possibly to allow the playwright to draw on the influence of Bulgakov.

Now, one is left trying to fathom whether the story is merely inexplicable or possibly the drugs callously and carelessly pumped into Gavril mean that all that has gone before was hallucinatory rather than real.

Silent Planet is challenging and has some useful points to make about Soviet society and Samizdat literature but viewers may need to allow some elements of the evening to wash over them.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher